Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 384 pages; 2009.
Jon Canter is a comedy writer* for a slew of British comedians, including Lenny Henry, Dawn French and Griff Rhys Jones — and it shows. This is possibly the funniest novel I’ve read since I first discovered the joys of Wodehouse back in the summer of 2007. It’s also possibly the most English.
The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along. Mind you, Robert details his entire life story, from his privileged childhood growing up in Notting Hill (“giving me splendid access to all the museums and concert halls London has to offer”), all the way through to his fifties when he’s set to inherit the family’s country house on the Suffolk coast. This means it takes almost 300 pages to figure out how he got himself in such a dire pickle.
From the very start it is clear that Robert is quite a strange man, although he, of course, thinks he’s completely normal, albeit part of an educated (and downright snobby) elite. He’s very analytical and does everything by the book: he is careful never to put a foot wrong and, like all good lawyers, could argue his way out of a paper bag.
There is nothing remotely frivolous or spur-of-the-moment about him. He seems emotionally distant from everyone around him, and while his story-telling comes across as aloof and arrogant, reading between the lines you get the feeling that everyone he meets, including his friends and colleagues, thinks he’s a bit of a dweeb, someone they can laugh at and treat badly because he simply won’t pick up on the nuances of certain situations.
For instance, when he decides to lose his virginity he does it all with the precision of planning a military campaign. When, at age 33, he decides he should settle down and get married (six years after his last girlfriend), he chooses his bride not on the basis of love but on the basis of “something more precious, more durable, and, above all, more rational. I was in the throes of marriage at first sight”. Two children, a house in the country and a promotion to QC follow. Later, without wishing to reveal any plot spoilers, things begin to fall apart…
I think the funniest thing about the book (and admittedly the first half, particularly Robert’s hapless relationship with his first girlfriend, Judy Page, is more hilarious than the second half) is the way in which it pokes fun at Britain’s upper-classes. Their eccentricities, the ways in which they run their households and conduct their lives all come in for more than their fair share of ribbing. How they raise their children, for instance, is summed up pretty well in this little vignette, when Robert is corralled into the bathroom by his ageing parents to discuss the unsuitability of his relationship to Judy Page:
This was extraordinary. I’d never been in a bathroom with my parents. When I was a boy, there was no ‘parenting’. There were parents but it was not their job to hang around the bathroom having a ‘relationship’ with you, by spending ‘quality’ (or quantity) time. Why would they want to spend time with you? You were a child. You mother would enquire from a different floor, whether you had had a bath and brushed your teeth. Your father wouldn’t ask. He was reading the paper. He took it on trust that you were having, or would be having, or had had a bath. For more than half the year, of course, you were at boarding school. He was reading the paper a hundred and fifty miles from your bath.
The book is also littered with footnotes, all very funny, which add to the enjoyment of the text. Indeed, even before the story begins we are presented with Acknowledgements, a Foreword, a Preface, an Author’s Note and an Author’s Further Note, and at the end there’s a Dog Index (noting all the references to dogs — Britain’s favourite pet — in the text) and a postscript by one of Robert’s so-called friends. You get the idea.
All in all, this might not be everyone’s idea of a great book, but I found A Short Gentleman completely in tune with my own dry sense of humour, the perfect light-hearted read for whenever you need a good laugh.
* He’s also a Jeremy Clarkson lookalike.